Nurse smiling at young patient in hospital

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and accelerated a problem healthcare leaders have been warning about for years – critical staffing issues in nursing and a shortage of skilled nurses. 

While demand for Registered Nurses is expected to grow by 6% over the next decade, nurse recruitment and retention are not keeping pace. An analysis of the nursing workforce done in April 2022 found that the supply of RNs decreased by more than 100,000 from 2020 to 2021.  

Hospitals and other healthcare facilities – and patients – are paying the price. Inadequate nurse staffing is associated with higher patient morbidity and mortality. Hospitals spent an estimated $24 billion to mitigate healthcare staffing shortages during the pandemic. 

A lot of that was spent on traveling nurses and the agencies that placed them. There was a 35% increase in demand for travel nurses across America during the pandemic.  

Issues Retaining Traveling Nurses  

Traveling nurses have been around since the 1980s, historically filling gaps in healthcare staffing for things like maternity leave coverage. A traveling nurse or contract nurse is hired for short-term work – typically a few weeks or months – through a staffing agency.  

Sounds good, right? Just like the pandemic exposed issues with accountable healthcare staffing, it also exposed the downside of relying on travel nursing. Here are five things healthcare leaders should weigh before using travel nurses to fill their staffing needs.  

1. Expense 

According to the American Hospital Association, hospitals spent a median of 4.7% of their total nurse labor expense for contract travel nurses in 2019. That jumped to 38.6% in early 2022, with some facilities reporting that their costs for travel nurses accounted for over 50% of their nursing labor expense.  

2. Price Gouging 

The high cost of travel nurses has led healthcare facilities to call foul on the travel nursing staffing agencies, claiming they are price gouging during an emergency situation. Staffing agency profits are soaring, with agencies retaining up to 40% of staffing payments for themselves. The high cost of retaining a travel nurse has prompted the American Hospital Association and the American Health Care Association to seek help from the White House and Congress, asking them to look into price gouging. 

3. Staff Alienation 

Healthcare facilities already facing staffing shortages run the risk of actually compounding the problem by hiring travel nurses, who can earn over double in weekly pay for doing the same job as staff nurses. That pay disparity is not going unnoticed, affecting staff nurse morale and forcing many to quit their job and join the ranks of travel nurses. It's a vicious cycle.  

4. Recruitment Issues 

Using a travel nurse puts facilities at the mercy of the recruitment agency – they hold the contractual relationship with the travel nurses. Hiring RNs and other healthcare support staff without going through a travel nurse staffing agency gives more control to the facilities – and to the nurses. You can build better long-term relationships which will lead to more stability and reliability on your team.  

5. Legal Headaches  

Retaining independent contractors from travel nursing agencies can open healthcare facilities up to legal issues in the event of employee disputes. It's important to understand the contract you have with the staffing agency, but if they face a lawsuit, the hospital may bear some of the liability.  

Finding Stable Healthcare Staffing Solutions  

There will always be a need in healthcare for temporary shift workers. On the other side of that coin, there will always be skilled RNs and other healthcare support staff who aren't looking for a permanent job. There is a balance between the two that can overcome the issues with travel nursing.  

Nursing job apps like ShiftMed are helping to create that balance to help facilities reach stable, sustainable staffing levels with local nurses looking for shiftwork. ShiftMed is an on-demand healthcare workforce marketplace that delivers scalable, cost-efficient labor through its nursing jobs app to healthcare enterprises, post-acute facilities, and homecare providers. See how it works.